March 03 2018

Our editors, who are never short of an opinion or two, have got into some bizarre discussions over the years about characterisation in crime fiction. Some people seem happy to read just for the plot, and don’t seem to mind if the lead character fits the usual maverick stereotype and the villain spends most of the book twirling their fiendish moustache. Us, we like a good mix of believable characters and water-tight plot, thank you – and so do our reviewers by the looks of things!

Characterisation often seems to take a back seat in books featuring serial killers, where authors seek to outdo each other in upping the gore factor and giving the bad guys an unusual trademark. The Lucky Ones by Mark Edwards is out of this stable, and Kati Barr-Taylor had some reservations. She also ran up against some problems with superficial characters in Rachel Abbott’s The Sixth Window, a psychological thriller which sees a woman’s life turned upside down when she checks the weather on her new partner’s computer. Linda Wilson got on better with The Fear Within, where a naval lieutenant investigates the disappearance of a woman from a warship in Portsmouth. Linda, who enjoys her army thrillers, says JS Law has cornered the market when it comes to the Royal Navy! Over on the other side of the Pond, Sheriff Quinn Colson investigates a bank robbery executed with military precision in The Fallen. Chris Roberts says Ace Atkins’ series just gets better and better, and populates the US backwoods with some really great characters.

There’s a strong crop of police procedurals this week, sporting a surprising number of likeable main characters. In Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah, DCI Kate Daniels’ private life is thrust into the spotlight when she investigates a macabre hanging on an ancient gallows. Linda Wilson says it’s a tautly-plotted story with a hell of a hook at the end. John Cleal takes a trip to rural Wales in Remember No More with a city DS starting a new job. John says WI literary competition winner Jan Newton’s book is an elegant and superbly paced first novel with an attractive and believable main character. He says the setting is a major player, as well! Ross Armstrong’s debut, Head Case, has a main character on one of the lower rungs of the policing ladder, which is unusual even in itself. Tom Mondrian is a PCSO returning to work after a catastrophic injury in the line of duty. Linda Wilson says the characters are complex, refreshingly diverse, vividly drawn, and even mostly likeable. She found it harder, though, to like the main characters in Brooke Magnanti’s second book, You Don’t Know Me, which sees forensic pathologist Harriet Hitchin facing a new challenge when the mummified body of a former call girl ends up in her mortuary. Despite that, Linda says the grisly post-mortem details are as grimly entertaining as anything served up by Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs.

On the Euro beat, Sue Kelso Ryan takes a trip to Norway in The Owl Always Hunts at Night where Samuel Bjork ramps up the tension for his police duo as they attempt to solve the murder of a woman found dead in a nest of owl feathers. Death on the Canal sees Amsterdam directive Lotte Meerman investigating a killing at a bar. Chris Roberts praises Anja de Jager’s interesting and engaging female protagonist. We have another sympathetic main character in The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl where the police find an abandoned car with a body of a small boy in a cardboard box on the back seat. Erhard, an old Danish recluse and a taxi driver on the island of Fuerteventura, decides to solve the murder. Ewa Sherman was very impressed.

Some series seem to go on forever, yet are still capable of attracting new readers. JD Robb’s series has reached its 44th instalment in Echoes in Death, where a chance encounter with a naked woman staggering through snowy streets propels Lieutenant Eve Dallas into another desperate race against time. John Barnbrook, who came very late to the series, finds Eve extremely likeable. Arnold Taylor also arrived late on the scene with Georges Simenon’s great detective, but now positively laps them up. He says Maigret Goes to School is unusually quiet and restrained, but is none the worse for that.

By contrast, Pale Horse Riding by Chris Petit is a challenging read, with its setting in a Nazi death camp. John Cleal says this reminder of the true horrors and warped ideologies that war can unleash comes wrapped in a brilliant but uncomfortable package. Nicolas Verdan’s The Greek Wall has an intelligence agent investigating the case of a severed head found on the border between Greece and Turkey. Chris Roberts found the book conveys a powerful and haunting impression of Greece, a place with many attractions as well as considerable challenges.

The British Library’s classic crime series again finds favour with our reviewers. John Cleal says Seven Dead by J Jefferson Farjeon is a classic locked room mystery which, despite some flaws, is a cleverly imagined – at times almost surreal – story which still has appeal. Chris Roberts enjoyed Foreign Bodies, edited by Martin Edwards. It presents 16 short stories from around the globe, written in the first half of the last century and with a focus on crime and detectives in the classic tradition.

We’ve allowed John Cleal to return to his beloved historicals this week. The Habit of Murder sees the return of Susanna Gregory’s medieval sleuths in their 23rd outing, this time in a dangerous situation in Suffolk.  John says she pitches her background perfectly, blending historical fact with believable skulduggery, twisted plotting and often bawdy humour. He was equally taken with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, a mind-bending murder story with a difference. John says it’s brilliant, but warns that you’ll read at your own peril, as he predicts that you’ll never look at a murder mystery in quite the same way again!

Our YA offering this week is the excellent audiobook of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Terror Kid, in which a teenage computer whizz is sucked unwittingly into a dangerous plot. Linda Wilson says this is an uncompromising look at the problems of prejudice in both policing and society.

Under the Countdown spotlight this time is author and reporter Julia Dahl. We hope we can muscle in on her simple but tasty quick meal. And we definitely covet her choice of footwear!

We’ll be back in a fortnight with 20 new reviews and an interview with a top name on the crime fiction scene. If you have a moment, see what our friends at Reviewing the Evidence think about new releases in the US, Canada and Australia.

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
Julia Dahl

Julia Dahl was born and raised in Fresno, California. She stumbled onto the staff of her high school newspaper in 1994 and has been chasing stories ever since.

After attending Yale University, she moved to New York to work in the publishing industry. In 2004 she started writing crime stories for Seventeen magazine and began a career reporting on crime and criminal justice.

Her feature articles have appeared in Salon, the Columbia Journalism Review, Pacific Standard and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among others. Dahl has been a freelance reporter for the New York Post, an associate features editor at Marie Claire, and the deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. She now writes for

Her first novel, Invisible City, published in 2014, is the story of a New York City tabloid reporter investigating the murder of a Hasidic woman. The sequel, Run You Down, was published in 2015. Conviction, the third book in the Rebekah Roberts series, was published in the US in 2017, and in the UK in March 2018 by Faber & Faber.

Dahl lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her knife-maker husband and son.

Ten words to sum up your working life to date ...

Entertainment reporter, women’s magazine editor, tabloid stringer, crime reporter, novelist

Nine things you can see from where you're sitting ...

Bottle of seltzer
Cardboard cup of coffee
Reporter’s notebook
Photocopy of court documents
Bank of TVs
Box of tissues
Delivery menu
Fortune cookie fortune that reads: “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it.”

Eight minutes to prepare a meal. What's it going to be ?

Plain old spaghetti with some olive oil, salt, pepper and plenty of parmesan